Coco Gauff and the Power of Kindness

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

New York

“In the locker room,” Tommy Paul commented, “Americans always say winning the first set 6-0 is a curse.” But not today.

Coco Gauff raced to a 6-0 first-set win over the powerful Jelena Ostapenko. What a relief. After all, the Latvian veteran, who’d won the French Open and reached the Wimbledon semis, had beaten Coco the last time they played, earlier this year. And Ostapenko demolished world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round here and is one of the WTA’s most explosive hitters when she’s on.

But it was Coco, not Jelena, who was on today. From the outset, Gauff imposed, with her speed, defense and athleticism. She ran Jelena to the corners. She mixed things up: short balls, slow serves, drop shots.

The winner of summer tourneys this year in Washington and Cincy, Gauff loves the heat and brought it in the sweltering conditions. (You think this is brutal? Try Florida.)

Ostapenko withered, offering many an awkward wince and even more unforced errors. Coco grabbed the first set 6-0 in 20 minutes, blinked just slightly early in the second set, and sprinted in a flash to a 6-0, 6-2, 68-minute victory – the shortest WTA match of the tourney. Throughout, Coco was clutch, winning on six of her seven break points as she made it through to her first ever US Open semis.

Now that Serena has retired and Naomi Osaka is mothering, Coco is tennis’ reigning “it” girl. She grins, she giggles, she’s beloved in the locker room and, more than ever, high-profile in TV ads. 

On court she’s been on fire. She’s won 15 of her last 16 matches, improving in front of our eyes. She’s problem solving with seamless certainty, locked in and smiling. Yes, she’s having a summer of love – but hasn’t lost her focus. Now she’s the youngest American teen to reach the US semis since Serena in 2001.

And, oh, yes, we almost forgot to mention, Coco could win the US Open. Not surprisingly, Mary Jo Fernandez said that, regardless of her next opponent, Coco’s the favorite, with a winning record over every one of her future foes. Commentator Chris Eubanks said Coco is playing better than ever.

Perhaps Gauff’s only significant error came on court when she told the crowd, “In football, defense wins games.” Broadcaster Chris McKendry was quick to point out Coco’s misstep. The correct adage, McKendry assured Coco, is, “Defense wins championships.” She added to Gauff, “Go get one yourself.” 

Coco Gauff is an athletic genius who’s on the cusp of superstardom. But as great as she is on court, she’s even better off court. After her press conference today, grizzled reporters were dumbstruck. “She’s going to become an American hero,” said one. “She already is,” noted another. “She’s so insightful, so inspiring.”

“This is crazy, she’s just 19,” said another writer who was struck by the teen’s poise and insight.

Coco said, “I just feel so fresh, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been tricking myself or maybe I’m going to hit a wall when this is over.”

So, what’s changed?

“I thought to win you have to be ultra serious and focused, which is true, but also you still have to enjoy it. That’s what’s been the change – I’m having more fun.

“At the first meeting I had with Brad before he started coaching me, he said, ‘You need to smile more.’…That’s something I’m trying to work on, and obviously I think it’s helping my results.”

Then Inside Tennis asked Coco about her little known grandmother, Yvonne Lee Odom, who was very much a pioneer long before she became an ardent fan of Coco’s.

“She’s probably the sole reason I use my platform the way I do and why I feel so comfortable speaking out. She was the first Black person to go to what was [in 1961] called Seacrest High School. She was chosen to integrate that school. I think that happened like six months after Ruby Bridges [a 1960 New Orleans hero] did her integration. She had to deal with a lot of things, like racial injustice. She led the way and was so kind to everyone, regardless of their background. That’s something that I take inspiration from, from her.

That’s why I always like to know everybody’s perspective. Whether I agree with it or not…Some people are raised in a certain environment and don’t know any other way. She always taught me to approach every situation with kindness and understanding.

“For her to go through what she did…is something I think of when I do post a tweet or make a speech…She always reminds me that I’m a person first, instead of an athlete.”

Gauff was then asked about the challenges of growing up in the public eye.

She quipped, “It’s definitely weird…I don’t view myself as big. Some of the celebrity kids have paparazzi everywhere. That’s crazy. In sports people forget you are a person….It’s important that you really know yourself…

“My family has always kept me grounded, and stressed the importance of self-worth, because sometimes you can lose your sense of self in this environment, going from country to country, social media, all of that.

“[But]…the amount of people I’ve met that come up to me saying nice things makes it all worth it. I will always continue to embrace the people, because the conversations I’ve had make me feel  I have done well in this life so far.”

Then, when asked about all the pressure that’s on her shoulders, she said the key was “just putting my life into perspective. I used to think negative things: why is there so much pressure, why is this so hard, blah, blah, blah. I realize [that] in a way it’s pressure – but it’s not. 

“I mean, there are people struggling to feed their families. People don’t know where their next meal is coming from, people have to pay their bills. That’s real pressure, real hardship, real life. I’m in a very privileged position, I’m getting paid to do what I love and getting support to do what I love. That’s something that I don’t take for granted.

“So I just put my life into perspective, and you especially have that perspective here in New York. I have a lucky life, so I should enjoy it. I know there are millions who want to be in this position, so instead of saying why this, why that, I just say why not me?…I just told myself, man, I should enjoy this life. I’m having so much fun. I should not think about the results…I’m living a lucky life and am so blessed. I don’t want to take it for granted. 

SAY IT ISN’T SO: After getting pummeled by Gauff, Jelena Ostapenko told the media she expected more out of Gauff. “I felt she had a lot of pressure because obviously to play at home is not easy. I felt that myself.”… During Alexander Zverev’s epic match against Jannik Sinner, a fan was singing “Deutschland Uber Alles,” a Hitler anthem. The guy was promptly thrown out. Sinner lost in 4:41 to Zverev. The vastly talented 22-year-old Italian lost in 5:15 to Carlos Alcaraz last year. He’s played 16 majors, but as yet has not reached a final.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “It was worth getting COVID for.” – Chris Fowler after COVID victim John McEnroe told him he got a get-well call from Rod Laver

MORE HISTORY FOR NOVAK: With today’s win over Taylor Fritz, Novak Djokovic has now broken the record for most Grand Slam semis in the men’s game and will play his 47th Slam semi on Friday.

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